Maxwell Geismar on Norman Mailer

From Maxwell Geismar’s memoir: Reluctant Radical

Norman Mailer was never part of our lives as were the [William] Styrons and the [James] Joneses, but we did see him around and he was always associated in my mind with the same group of writers who emerged in the fifties….

I had already reviewed The Naked and the Dead in the Saturday Review in 1949, and Barbary Shore in the same magazine in 1951, and would write about The Deer Park (1955) in American Moderns. I had praised Mailer’s first novel while noting it was consciously literary and derived from such writers as Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos…. I had panned Barbary Shore as being a novel of ideas that were “fashionable by current standards” but that were also mistaken….

As early as this second book Mailer had cut himself off from the revolutionary currents of the world historical scene around him. Becoming as he did one of the sharpest critics of American capitalism, knowing it was a corrupt and rotten social system — as he said over and over again — he had no feasible alternative to what he was condemning.

Hence his own work became infested with the corruption he was describing. Even more important, all that he could place against this decadent society was the solitary image of himself apart from it. Apart, but basically no different from it in his motivation and his literary achievement. In turn that treacherous ego of Mailer’s would increase and enlarge itself into monstrous proportions.

That was the mistake I sensed in Barbary Shore as far back as 1951. Mailer was far smarter than either Styron or Jones in seeing what was wrong around him, but that intellectual brilliance was supported by no vision or ideological framework.

As a social critic, Mailer was also a failed novelist. That special poison, which can paralyze a creative personality, also contaminated his other writing, his values, and his personality. In this sense Mailer’s career can be described as one long ego trip designed to keep the failure of the artist away from the artist’s own consciousness.

[Geismar on Mailer continued in the next Geismar post]

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